In Western imagination, Hell is a place of everlasting torment and suffering for the wicked. Brunlesschi's painting in Florence's Duomo illustrates it well:

A painting by Brunlesschi

The word 'Hell' itself, however, doesn't appear much in the Bible, and where it does, there are seeming differences from this popular narrative. The terms that are used: 'Sheol', 'Hades' and 'Gehenna' may differ from this notion.

Specifically, in what ways do each of these terms commonly translated as Hell differ from what the 'average person' in modern day America thinks of Hell? Biblically, what are the differences amongst these terms? How is each term for a 'hell' used, and how do they differ from each other?

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    I'm allowing doctrinal interpretation, which is why I posted it here instead of bh. I'm aware that different denominations may have different interpretations, but since this is inherently seeking to identify the distinguishing criteria, a denominational perspective itself isn't necessary. Jan 26 '15 at 19:34
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    Basically, if your denomination distinguishes between any of these types of hell, and you have any sort of biblical reference to show that, your answer is on-topic. Jan 26 '15 at 19:35
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    I think you'll find the subject matter itself is sufficiently narrow (take these three words often translated as hell and tell me if there are any differences between them) that there are a very limited set of interpretations. There will be only two camps. Those that say "They are the exact same thing" and those that say "Gehenna is different from Sheol and/or Hades in this way, according to X". That's a narrow enough scope to get a decent answer Jan 26 '15 at 19:37
  • Meta discussion here Jan 26 '15 at 19:51
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    Too broad I think. One question for each Hebrew or Greek word would be best.
    – curiousdannii
    Jan 26 '15 at 23:46

Michael A. Knibb says, in 'Life and death in the Old Testament', published in The World of Ancient Israel: Sociological, Anthropological and Political Perspectives, pages 403-5, that at death the individual was placed in the grave, but he was at the same time thought to go down to the realm of the dead, to Sheol, as that realm is most commonly named in the Old Testament. He says the dead were believed to continue in existence in Sheol, albeit in a very weak and reduced state. The Old Testament concept of the realm of the dead as a place of darkness, in which the dead lead a shadowy existence, cut off from men and God, unable to praise God and indeed unable to do anything, seems quite similar to the pagan concept of Hades. The early Christian pseudepigraphal Ascension of Isaiah speaks of Jesus descending to sheol to rescue the righteous dead before reascending to the highest heaven (there were seven heavens).

Alan Millard says in Discoveries from the Time of Jesus, page 38, that a steep-sided valley to the south of Jerusalem, was probably the site of their refuse tip, where they could dump what they did not want, possibly throwing it over the edge of the valley, and set it on fire. He says even if flames were not always shooting out, the piles of rubbish would always be smoking and smouldering. Much of what was not burnt, or would not burn, gradually decomposed, as worms and insects gnawed and burrowed, or corrosion and rust ate into it. That valley was named the Valley of the Sons of Hinnom, or just the Valley of Hinnom, in Old Testament times. By the first century, its name had been put into Aramaic as Gehenna and had become a common Jewish word for hell. Uta Ranke-Heinemann says, in Putting Away Childish Things, page 236, Gehinnom (Gehenna) owed its ill repute to the child sacrifices that are supposed to have been offered up in the fire there. The Jewish Encyclopedia says the valley was deemed to be accursed, and "Gehenna" therefore soon became a figurative equivalent for "hell." We see a New Testament reference to Gehenna in Mark 9:47, although this is commonly (eg KJV) translated as 'hell fire'.

Our word 'hell' is from Norse mythology, where it is the realm of Hel, the goddess of death, but is not a place of punishment. Wikipedia tells us that Achaemenid era (648–330 BCE) Zoroastrianism developed the abstract concepts of heaven and hell, as well as personal and final judgement, all of which are only alluded to in the Gathas. Hell did not properly enter the Jewish faith, but the Zoroastrian concept is believed to have strongly influenced Christianity. In later Christian tradition Satan ruled hell and suffered there himself, but neither point is clear in the New Testament. Uta Ranke-Heinemann says (ibid, page 236) Matthew is the main gospel to makes Jesus use hell as a threat. She cites Georg Baudler, who says (Theologie der Gegenwart) all the divine tribunals and images of Hell that appear in Jesus' parables are later interpolations, and in some cases they actually wreck the structure of the original parable.

  • See, this is what I'm talking about! I'd like to see if other answers come, too, but this is a good answer. Jan 27 '15 at 0:32
  • The last sentence sounds doubtful, unless one is willing to argue that Judith, for instance, was either penned or modified in Christian times.
    – Lucian
    Apr 17 '20 at 9:00

The word Gehenna is used only in some translations such as Young’s Literal translation, and in most translations is rendered as Hell.


Matthew 5:29 Young’s literal translation `But, if thy right eye doth cause thee to stumble, pluck it out and cast from thee, for it is good to thee that one of thy members may perish, and not thy whole body be cast to gehenna.

Matthew 5:29 NKJV If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell.

The word in the original Greek is:

geennan γέενναν . hell N-AFS

So those two words are exactly the same and appear to be a choice by the translator.

The words Sheol, and Hades are both used in several translation:

Hades: Greek used in the New Testament hadou ᾅδου* of hades N-GMS

Sheol: Hebrew used in the Old Testament

šə•’ō•wl שְׁא֛וֹל the engrave Noun


Matthew 16:18 And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.

Isaiah 38:18 For Sheol cannot thank You, Death cannot praise You; Those who go down to the pit cannot hope for Your truth.

According to Naves topical Bible this is an excerpt:

• The translation of the Hebrew word »sheol,« which signifies the unseen state. Sheol is also translated as »pit,« »lowest pit,« »Sheol,« and »grave« in some versions Isa 5:14; Isa 14:9; Isa 14:15; Isa 28:15; Isa 28:18; Isa 57:9; Ezek 31:16-17; Ezek 32:21; Ezek 32:27; Amos 9:2; Jonah 2:2; Hab 2:5; Deut 32:22; Ps 86:13; Ps 55:15; 2Sam 22:6; Job 11:8; Job 26:6; Ps 9:17; Ps 16:10; Ps 18:5; Ps 116:3; Ps 139:8; Prov 5:5; Prov 7:27; Prov 9:18; Prov 15:11; Prov 15:24; Prov 23:14; Prov 27:20; Gen 37:35; Gen 42:38; Gen 44:29; Gen 44:31; 1Sam 2:6; 1Kgs 2:6; 1Kgs 2:9; Job 7:9; Job 14:13; Job 17:13; Job 21:13; Job 24:19; Ps 6:5; Ps 30:3; Ps 31:17; Ps 49:14-15; Ps 88:3; Ps 89:48; Ps 141:7; Prov 1:12; Prov 30:16; Eccl 9:10; Song 8:6; Hos 13:14

• The translation of the Greek word »gehenna« Matt 5:22; Matt 5:29-30; Matt 10:28; Matt 18:9; Matt 23:15; Matt 23:33; Mark 9:43; Mark 9:45; Mark 9:47; Luke 12:5; Jas 3:6

• The translation of the Greek word »hades,« which signifies the unseen world Matt 11:23; Matt 16:18; Luke 10:15; Luke 16:23; Acts 2:27; Acts 2:31; Rev 1:18; Rev 6:8; Rev 20:13-14

• The future abode of the wicked Ps 9:17; Prov 5:5; Prov 9:13-18; Prov 15:24; Prov 23:13-14; Isa 30:33; Isa 33:14; Matt 3:12; Matt 5:29-30; Matt 7:13-14; Matt 8:11-12; Matt 10:28; Matt 13:30; Matt 13:38-42; Matt 13:49-50; Matt 16:18; Matt 18:8-9; Matt 18:34-35; Matt 22:13; Matt 25:28-30; Matt 25:41; Matt 25:46; Mark 9:43-48; Luke 3:17; Luke 16:23-26; Luke 16:28; Acts 1:25; 2Thess 1:9; 2Pet 2:4; Jude 1:6; Jude 1:23; Rev 9:1-2; Rev 11:7; Rev 14:10-11; Rev 19:20; Rev 20:10; Rev 20:15; Rev 21:8; Rev 2:11 Wicked, Punishment of

All of these are commonly thought to refer to Hell except the word Sheol as used in the Old Testament, which is most commonly referenced to the grave. The Ancient Hebrew Nation apparently felt that there were two separate places where the dead went. The physical bodies went to grave to decay, but the soul or eternal person could be punished in Hades or what we now call Hell.

Although it is not stated it appears that the grave was a place where righteous people awaited Paradise in sleep, and Hades was a place where the unrighteous were beginning their eternal punishment.

There are some Scriptures which fortify each of these ideas:


John 11:11 through 14 These things He said, and after that He said to them, "Our friend Lazarus sleeps, but I go that I may wake him up." 12 Then His disciples said, "Lord, if he sleeps he will get well." 13 However, Jesus spoke of his death, but they thought that He was speaking about taking rest in sleep. 14 Then Jesus said to them plainly, "Lazarus is dead.

At different times in History all of these words may have had differing connotations, but now they are all considered to be the same place.

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